SXSW 2011 Review: BETTER THIS WORLD
The best documentaries leave their viewers aghast at the twists and turns of real life – true stories that are more shockingly crafted and inherently bizarre than anything that could be written, sprung from someone’s imagination. In BETTER THIS WORLD, directors Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega tell the true story of two Texas natives, David McKay and Bradley Crowder, and the series of events that led both of the young Midland residents to domestic terrorism charges. Like any good story, things are not what they seem in BETTER THIS WORLD. And when it comes to the people who populate the story of McKay and Crowder – well, real people are the most deceptive piece of the complicated nightmare that ensnared McKay, Crowder, and everyone their case touched.
Childhood friends, David McKay and Bradley Crowder were much like other young and intelligent smalltown kids – they were hungry for something more. Though neither were especially political growing up, as they aged, they did not so much become disaffected with the status quo as they became intrigued by the concept of being part of something bigger. When they started to get more into liberal politics, and when they met political activist and liberal crusader Brandon Darby, it’s fair to say their fate was sealed. Magnetic and experienced, Darby was one of the founders of Common Ground Relief, a non-profit that “walked the walk” when it came to assisting post-Katrina New Orleans. As McKay and Crowder got more involved in Darby’s politics and methodology, they also found themselves much more apt to go to the extremes that Darby championed – action over talk. They were also much more apt to commit the crime that BETTER THIS WORLD chronicles – their manufacturing and possession of eight “Molotov cocktails” at the 2008 Republican National Convention.
The film doesn’t shy away from some of the most damning facts of the case – namely that, for all intents and purposes, the boys were guilty of the basics of their crime. McKay and Crowder made and possessed Molotov cocktails. But the story does not even remotely end or begin there, because their idealism gone insane is not just due to two radicals feeding off each other. Radicals they are not, with McKay refusing to identify himself as an anarchist, instead choosing to be referred to simply as “an American citizen.”
There is, of course, a twist at the heart of BETTER THIS WORLD – a twist that will reveal just why McKay and Crowder may not be wholly to blame for their crime. Their level of guilt will depend entirely on the audience’s individual perceptions. The film is well-crafted to the point of misdirection. For the first half of its runtime, it’s hard to tell just who is a hero or villain, and it’s hard to decide who to identify with, who to support. BETTER THIS WORLD will make you angry – but if you will be angry at McKay and Crowder, the justice system, the FBI, the informant who exposed the boys, or some other faceless entity is entirely up to you.
The filmmakers had access to a number of pieces of written testimony, along with voice recordings (including other testimony, jailhouse phone calls, and interviews), and BETTER THIS WORLD puts them together in interesting and inventive ways. Though there is no video of McKay’s trial, graphics are used to convey the feel of it and its testimony. The film also uses a number of pieces of surveillance video from around both the boys’ native Texas and the convention, increasing the unshakable sense of being present for all the dirty deeds. A number of important players are interviewed, from McKay and Crowder to their families, the FBI, other friends involved in the case, and BETTER THIS WORLD provides a very full-spectrum look at a complicated case. The film also features original music by Paul Brill that shifts between upbeat and imposing, well-timed to work with the similarly shifting lens of the entire film.
BETTER THIS WORLD is a damning piece of documentary filmmaking, turning what would seem to be a cut-and-dry story into something much bigger, with a twist that will make you gasp. But BETTER THIS WORLD doesn’t have any answers, just more questions, and a needling sense that there is something deeply wrong in this world where the emphasis can shift from “integrity” to “accountability” so seamlessly.
Of note - I suspect that, for the "twist" of the film to most deeply touch and shock its audience, it would be best if those unfamiliar with the case do not search for any of its particulars before watching the film. Consider this a reverse spoiler alert.